The flat on Gagarin Avenue in Kharkiv city had been their refuge for the past four months, but Klavdiya and Petro Pivoravov drove away with barely a backward glance.
They were finally going home to the village of Mospanove about 70km away, now that Ukraine had expelled Russia’s invasion force from the eastern region of Kharkiv and their cottage was no longer in the line of fire between the warring armies.
After a stop to buy two bags of cement to patch up shell and mortar damage to the cottage, the rusty Zhiguli estate car – sold as a Lada outside the former Soviet Union – puttered on to Kharkiv’s ring road, with Petro (73) and Klavdiya (74) crammed in among plastic bags full of their belongings and with their friend Yevhen Shaulskyi at the wheel.
“She was built back in 1986 and I’ve had her for 12 years and must have driven 150,000km in her,” says Shaulskyi (50), whose family also has a cottage in Mospanove.
“After the Russians invaded in February I used her to evacuate people from the village and to deliver food and other supplies to people who stayed there. I drove through the fields whenever it was dry enough to avoid the Russian positions,” he explains.
“All the locks are bust and the windscreen is cracked but she kept going through everything – she’s a gem.”
The ring road takes them between apartment blocks scarred by fighting in the early days of the invasion, when Moscow’s troops were on the edge of Kharkiv and few outsiders believed the city – just 35km from the border – could hold out against the Russian army.
They drive through checkpoints of soldiers who are relaxed now that the region is back under Ukrainian control, and past a mangled menorah monument at Drobytsky Yar – where the Nazis executed thousands of Jews in 1941 – that was hit by artillery fire in March.
The road curves through fields of faded sunflowers whose seeds will not be harvested this year, trenches dug to defend Ukraine’s second city and other reminders of recent battles: gutted armoured vehicles being stripped by scrap-metal hunters, shards of shells on the potholed tarmac, and demining crews scanning the roadside for explosives. This is also the route taken by police and forensic teams to Izyum, a town 70km away, to investigate allegations of Russian torture and mass graves containing hundreds of bodies.
In Hrakove, 10km from the Pivovars’ home, signs of Russia’s occupation are everywhere, from the bullet holes and gaping artillery scars on the school and church, to green Moscow-issued military ration packs lying in the grass of the near-silent village.
The Russians entered Mospanove only for three days in March and then withdrew to nearby positions, from which they launched shells, mortars and missiles at Ukrainian-held areas and received heavy fire in return.
“We left in May, when there were 60 or 70 shells flying over the village every day. A shell landed very near the cottage and they were bombing with planes, so we decided to get away and move to Kharkiv,” Klavdiya says, explaining how they ended up spending four months with their daughter Viktoria in her flat on Gagarin Avenue.
She met Petro when they were both veterinary students and they have been together for 54 years. He was born in Mospanove, and they worked as vets on a nearby collective farm during the Soviet era.
“It was hard to be in a flat in the city all that time,” says Petro, who spent much of his time reading. “It will be good to get to work on our allotment again.”
When Yevhen reverses the car up to the blue gate of their cottage, overhung by pear and walnut trees, various dogs bustle around Petro and Klavdiya and two white goats watch nonchalantly from the yard as their son Andriy welcomes them home.
Andriy (50) looked after the house and allotment alone during the worst of the fighting, and spent many days and nights in the cellar of the cottage, amid jars of pickles and jams that help feed the family through winter.
“I became like a tortoise, pulling my head into my shoulders at the slightest sound,” says Andriy, describing how his hearing was damaged when a shell exploded nearby and how he had weird dreams and heard strange voices as a result of probable concussion.
The danger he faced is clear from a glance into the kitchen, where the door of the fridge is studded by shrapnel hurled into the cottage by an explosion.
Shelling and gunfire killed several residents of Mospanove, which was home to about 950 people before Russia’s all-out invasion in February. Now only about 100 people are here, though numbers are creeping up from a low of 67 when fighting was at its worst.
Klavdiya and Petro sit at the wooden bench in their yard, drinking tea and eating bread and butter topped with thick slices of sausage, and discuss what needs to be done.
When they talk about bringing in the potatoes and onions, Andriy calls across from where he is working to tell them he has already done it; when they mention the carrots, he says they need a bit longer in the ground – he hasn’t let things slip in their absence.
But Petro wants to see for himself. He was born here and his father is buried here, and he knows every inch of their land and the little stream that runs through it.
“We lived well here when it was peaceful,” he says, walking between patches of dark earth where they grow pumpkins, cabbages, cucumbers, beetroot and tomatoes.
“We’ve got a field of wheat too, but I don’t know how we’re going to harvest it this year with mines and explosives all over the place,” he adds.
About 50m from the cottage, glossy onions lie strewn in a deep crater of dark soil left by a mortar shell.
“They were shelling from three different directions,” says Andriy, pointing across the fields to where Russians were positioned about 1.5km away. “They were so close that when you heard them fire, you only had a second or two to dive to the ground or take cover before there was an explosion.”
Village head Ivan Shaulskyi (a distant relative of Yevhen), says he was briefly held captive by Russian troops who entered Mospanove for three days in early March. He considers himself lucky, knowing how some local leaders were beaten, tortured and killed during Russia’s occupation of towns and villages near Kyiv at the same time.
“They stole what they could from our school,” he says, adding that there are now only two children in Mospanove, compared to 82 before Russia’s full invasion in February.
“We have no gas or electricity supply now and it could take a long time to fix it – a small place like this is way down the priority list. We also have to make everywhere safe. We were on the frontline, so both sides mined approaches to the village,” Shaulskyi explains.
“We have to try to get things fixed before winter, but I can’t even estimate what it will all cost. People will come back if they can – there’s no place like home.”
The Pivovars are glad to be home and realise their good fortune: Kharkiv region, though badly damaged, is now liberated, but the frontline is just 130km from Mospanove, and much of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, Zaporizhzhia and Mikolayiv provinces are still occupied, as well as the Crimean peninsula in the Black Sea.
Petro brings out a plastic bottle of homemade brandy and glasses are raised to their return home, to friendship and to Ukraine’s victory. As Klavdiya busies herself around the cottage, Andriy fills a big carrier bag with pears for their visitors, and the two white goats nibble walnuts in the yard.
“I missed everything about life here,” Klavdiya says. “But especially our son.”